Monday, March 13, 2017


The most confounding thing I ate in Kunming was this dish of stir-fried walnuts. (At least I think they were walnuts.)

I pride myself on my ability to find good, cheap, interesting food in foreign cities. (After all, what else makes life worth living? I fear I permanently alienated myself from several other writers on our British Council trip to Guadalajara in 2015 by the intensity of my reaction when I learned that they were planning to eat dinner in the hotel.) But here my usual strategies were all hopeless. The problems were as follows.

1. Because not many Western tourists come to Kunming, there is hardly any data about it on the Anglophone gastronomical internet, compared to cities like Saigon or Chiang Mai.

2. The sum total of my prior knowledge of Yunnan food was a dim recollection of a New York magazine review of two Yunnanese restaurant​ that opened in Manhattan a few years ago (I never ate at either of them and they have both since closed). In other countries, where I know the basics of the cuisine, I can just keep squawking the word 'laap' or 'pho' with different intonations until I'm served some kind of meal, but here I had no idea what the essential dishes were, let alone how to say their names.

3. The sole reason I came to Kunming was because the chef Andy Ricker said in an interview that Kunming has 'fantastic outdoor eating'. I can't contradict him, but although I did eat some good bowls of spicy wheat noodles on the street, I already had a lot of spicy wheat noodles on the docket for Xi'an and Chengdu. I realised that if I wanted to eat distinctively Yunnanese food, I was going to have to eat in restaurants, which was a dispiriting prospect for reasons I will lay out shortly.

My Airbnb host, Emily, was kind enough to take me out for a bowl of 'crossing-the-bridge noodles', the signature dish of Yunnanese cuisine. But of course there is a lot more to Yunnanese cuisine to that. In fact, the primary item of trivia I have learned is that it would be possible to assemble a Hawaiian pizza from Yunnanese ingredients. Most people don't think of Chinese food as including bread, cheese, tomatoes, pineapple or ham (as opposed to pork or bacon), but all of these things are eaten in Yunnan. I was determined to tick 'Chinese cheese' off my list, and by my last night in Kunming I still hadn't succeeded, so I went to Lao Fangzi, a restaurant that came universally recommended by what few sources I could find.

Why do I hate eating in restaurants on a trip like this? 1. Restaurants are a lot more expensive. 2. Eating alone at a rickety aluminium table in a crowded market, I find exhilarating; eating alone in a proper restaurant with waiters and a wine list (or baijiu list), I find rather melancholic. 3. At street stalls, I often just point to another table in the universal gesture of 'I'll have what they're having.' In restaurants, it's harder to make yourself understood like that. Do you mean 'I'll have every single dish those six people ordered'? Do you mean 'I'd like to sit with them, they look nice'? (The relevance here of Willard van Quine's theory of the inscrutability of reference is, I trust, obvious to any reader of this blog, so I will not bother to dwell on it.)

And 4. restaurant dishes in China are intended to be shared. So if I wanted to eat Yunnanese fried goat's cheese, I had no choice but to order a platter suitable for a wedding buffet. And if I wanted to eat Yunnanese chrysanthemum greens, I had no choice but to order a plate of leaves so big that it didn't resemble a salad so much as an agricultural surplus.

I was able to get that far because the menu, mercifully, had pictures. The only English text in the whole thing was a heading on one page that read 'Characteristic Local Flavors', and I decided to complete my dinner by ordering from that section, hoping to try something unique to the region. With the waitress at my shoulder, I pointed at a dish that looked as if it might be some kind of stir-fried chicken.

However, there were two more things I wanted that I couldn't find any pictures of: some steamed rice and a beer. 'Rice?' I said. (Why, before coming to China, did I not at the very least learn the Chinese word for rice? I cannot give you a satisfactory answer to that question.) The waitress flipped to the back of the menu and pointed at a listing that appeared, from the prices, to be three different sizes of something quite cheap. I nodded and pointed at the smallest size. Shortly afterwards, she returned with... a small bottle of Tuborg. Failing to order one thing I wanted, I had inadvertently succeeding in ordering the other thing. But I never did get any rice. And this mishap turned out to be harbinger of what was to come, because the rest of the food soon arrived. First the cheese, then the greens, and finally the stir-fried walnuts. Because that was apparently what I had ordered.

I tried them. They tasted roughly as you'd imagine. In other words, I'd inverted the usual cliché about the Englishman in an exotic land who tentatively orders who he hopes will be an innocuous dish and ends up with jackal tartare or something like that. Excited to try something fiercely Yunnanese, I'd been served the kind of food that you wouldn't otherwise find yourself eating unless one of your dinner party guests informed you at fifteen minutes' notice that his new girlfriend was vegan. A lot of people seem to think the greatest peril of dining in faraway places is that you'll be obliged to eat something weird, tainted, or morally unconscionable; on the contrary, the greatest peril of dining in faraway places is that you'll be obliged to eat something boring.



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